Henry had been recently offered a very good position in an arms manufactory in Boston, and, having made up his mind to leave the village, he wrote to accept it, and promptly followed his letter, having first pledged his sole Newville correspondent, Laura, to make no references to Madeline in her letters.
"If they should be married," he was particular to say, "don't tell me about it till some time afterward."
Perhaps he worked the better in his new place because he was unhappy. The foe of good work is too easy self-complacency, too ready self-satisfaction, and the tendency to a pleased and relaxed contemplation of life and one's surroundings, growing out of a well-to-do state. Such a smarting sense of defeat, of endless aching loss as filled his mind at this time, was a most exacting background for his daily achievements in business and money-making to show up against. He had lost that power of enjoying rest which is at once the reward and limitation of human endeavour. Work was his nepenthe, and the difference between poor, superficial work and the best, most absorbing, was simply that between a weaker and a stronger opiate. He prospered in his affairs, was promoted to a position of responsibility with a good salary, and, moreover, was able to dispose of a patent in gun-barrels at a handsome price.
With the hope of distracting his mind from morbid brooding over what was past helping, he went into society, and endeavoured to interest himself in young ladies. But in these efforts his success was indifferent. Whenever he began to flatter himself that he was gaining a philosophical calm, the glimpse of some face on the street that reminded him of Madeline's, an accent of a voice that recalled hers, the sight of her in a dream, brought back in a moment the old thrall and the old bitterness with undiminished strength.
Eight or nine months after he had left home the longing to return and see what had happened became irresistible. Perhaps, after all—
Although this faint glimmer of a doubt was of his own making, and existed only because he had forbidden Laura to tell him to the contrary, he actually took some comfort in it. While he did not dare to put the question to Laura, yet he allowed himself to dream that something might possibly have happened to break off the match. He was far, indeed, from formally consenting to entertain such a hope. He professed to himself that he had no doubt that she was married and lost to him for ever. Had anything happened to break off the match, Laura would certainly have lost no time in telling him such good news. It was childishness to fancy aught else. But no effort of the reason can quite close the windows of the heart against hope, and, like a furtive ray of sunshine finding its way through a closed shutter, the thought that, after all, she might be free surreptitiously illumined the dark place in which he sat.
When the train stopped at Newville he slipped through the crowd at the station with the briefest possible greetings to the acquaintances he saw, and set out to gain his father's house by a back street.
On the way he met Harry Tuttle, and could not avoid stopping to exchange a few words with him.. As they talked, he was in a miserable panic of apprehension lest Harry should blurt out something about Madeline's being married. He felt that he could only bear to hear it from Laura's lips. Whenever the other opened his mouth to speak, a cold dew started out on Henry's forehead for fear he was going to make some allusion to Madeline; and when at last they separated without his having done so, there was such weakness in his limbs as one feels who first walks after a sickness.
He saw his folly now, his madness, in allowing himself to dally with a baseless hope, which, while never daring to own its own existence, had yet so mingled its enervating poison with every vein that he had now no strength left to endure the disappointment so certain and so near. At the very gate of his father's house he paused. A powerful impulse seized him to fly. It was not yet too late. Why had he come? He would go back to Boston, and write Laura by the next mail, and adjure her to tell him nothing. Some time he might bear to hear the truth, but not to-day, not now; no, not now. What had he been thinking of to risk it? He would get away where nobody could reach him to slay with a word this shadow of a hope which had become such a necessity of life to him, as is opium to the victim whose strength it has sapped and alone replaces. It was too late! Laura, as she sat sewing by the window, had looked up and seen him, and now as he came slowly up the walk she appeared at the door, full of exclamations of surprise and pleasure. He went in, and they sat down.
"I thought I'd run out and see how you all were," he said, with a ghastly smile.
"I'm so glad you did! Father was wondering only this morning if you were never coming to see us again."
He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
"I thought I'd just run out and see you."
"Yes, I'm so glad you did!"
She did not show that she noticed his merely having said the same thing over.
"Are you pretty well this spring?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm pretty well."
"Father was so much pleased about your patent. He's ever so proud of you."
After a pause, during which Henry looked nervously from point to point about the room, he said—
"Yes, very, and so am I."
There was a long silence, and Laura took up her work-basket, and bent her face over it, and seemed to have a good deal of trouble in finding some article in it.
Suddenly he said, in a quick, spasmodic way—
"Is Madeline married?"
Good God! Would she never speak!
"No," she answered, with a falling inflection.
His heart, which had stopped beating, sent a flood of blood through every artery. But she had spoken as if it were the worst of news, instead of good. Ah! could it be? In all his thoughts, in all his dreams by night or day, he had never thought, he had never dreamed of that.
"Is she dead?" he asked, slowly, with difficulty, his will stamping the shuddering thought into words, as the steel die stamps coins from strips of metal.
"No," she replied again, with the same ill-boding tone.
"In God's name, what is it?" he cried, springing to his feet. Laura looked out at the window so that she might not meet his eye as she answered, in a barely audible voice—
"There was a scandal, and he deserted her; and afterward—only last week—she ran away, nobody knows where, but they think to Boston."
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon when Henry heard the fate of Madeline. By four o'clock he was on his way back to Boston. The expression of his face as he sits in the car is not that which might be expected under the circumstances. It is not that of a man crushed by a hopeless calamity, but rather of one sorely stricken indeed, but still resolute, supported by some strong determination which is not without hope.
Before leaving Newville he called on Mrs. Brand, who still lived in the same house. His interview with her was very painful. The sight of him set her into vehement weeping, and it was long before he could get her to talk. In the injustice of her sorrow, she reproached him almost bitterly for not marrying Madeline, instead of going off and leaving her a victim to Cordis. It was rather hard for him to be reproached in this way, but he did not think of saying anything in self-justification. He was ready to take blame upon himself.' He remembered no more now how she had rejected, rebuffed, and dismissed him. He told himself that he had cruelly deserted her, and hung his head before the mother's reproaches.
The room in which they sat was the same in which he had waited that morning of the picnic, while in his presence she had put the finishing touches to her toilet. There, above the table, hung against the wall the selfsame mirror that on that morning had given back the picture of a girl in white, with crimson braid about her neck and wrists, and a red feather in the hat so jauntily perched above the low forehead—altogether a maiden exceedingly to be desired. Perhaps, somewhere, she was standing before a mirror at that moment. But what sort of a flush is it upon her cheeks? What sort of a look is it in her eyes? What is this fell shadow that has passed upon her face?
By the time Henry was ready to leave the poor mother had ceased her upbraidings, and had yielded quite to the sense of a sympathy, founded in a loss as great as her own, which his presence gave her. Re was the only one in all the world from whom she could have accepted sympathy, and in her lonely desolation it was very sweet. And at the last, when, as he was about to go, her grief burst forth afresh, he put his arm around her and drew her head to his shoulder, and tenderly soothed her, and stroked the thin grey hair, till at last the long, shuddering sobs grew a little calmer. It was natural that he should be the one to comfort her. It was his privilege. In the adoption of sorrow, and not of joy, he had taken this mother of his love to be his mother.
"Don't give her up," he said. "I will find her if she is alive."
A search, continued unintermittingly for a week among the hotels and lodging-houses of Boston, proved finally successful. He found her. As she opened the door of the miserable apartment which she occupied, and saw who it was that had knocked, the hard, unbeautiful red of shame covered her face. She would have closed the door against him, had he not quickly stepped within. Her eyelids fluttered a moment, and then she met his gaze with a look of reckless hardihood. Still holding the door half open, she said—
"Henry Burr, what do you want?"
The masses of her dark hairs hung low about her neck in disorder, and even in that first glance his eye had noted a certain negligent untidiness about her toilet most different from her former ways. Her face was worn and strangely aged and saddened, but beautiful still with the quenchless beauty of the glorious eyes, though sleepless nights had left their dark traces round them;
"What do you want? Why do you come here?" she demanded again, in harsh, hard tones; for he had been too much moved in looking at her to reply at once.
Now, however, he took the door-handle out of her hand and closed the door, and said, with only the boundless tenderness of his moist eyes to mend the bluntness of the words—
"Madeline, I want you. I want you for my wife."
The faintest possible trace of scorn was perceptible about her lips, but her former expression of hard indifference was otherwise quite unchanged as she replied, in a spiritless voice—
"So you came here to mock me? It was taking a good deal of trouble, but it is fair you should have your revenge."
He came close up to her.
"I'm not mocking. I'm in earnest. I'm one of those fellows who can never love but one woman, and love her for ever and ever. If there were not a scrap of you left bigger than your thumb, I'd rather have it than any woman in the world."
And now her face changed. There came into it the wistful look of those before whom passes a vision of happiness not for them, a look such as might be in the face of a doomed spirit which, floating by, should catch a glimpse of heavenly meads, and be glad to have had it, although its own way lay toward perdition. With a sudden impulse she dropped upon her knee, and seizing the hem of his coat pressed it to her lips, and then, before he could catch her, sprang away, and stood with one arm extended toward him, the palm turned outward, warning him not to touch her. Her eyes were marvellously softened with the tears that suffused them, and she said—
"I thank you, Henry. You are very good. I did not think any man could be so good. Now I remember, you always were very good to me. It will make the laudanum taste much sweeter. No! no! don't! Pity my shame. Spare me that! Oh, don't!"
But he was stronger than she, and kissed her. It was the second time he had ever done it. Her eyes flashed angrily, but that was instantly past, and she fell upon a chair crying as if her heart would break, her hands dropping nervously by her sides; for this was that miserable, desolate sorrow which does not care to hide its flowing tears and wrung face.
"Oh, you might have spared me that! O God! was it not hard enough before?" she sobbed.
In his loving stupidity, thinking to reassure her, he had wounded the pride of shame, the last retreat of self-respect, that cruellest hurt of all. There was a long silence. She seemed to have forgotten that he was there. Looking down upon her as she sat desolate, degraded, hopeless before him, not caring to cover her face, his heart swelled till it seemed as if it would burst, with such a sense of piteous loyalty and sublimed devotion as a faithful subject in the brave old times might have felt towards his queen whom he has found in exile, rags, and penury. Deserted by gods and men she might be, but his queen for ever she was, whose feet he was honoured to kiss. But what a gulf between feeling this and making her understand his feeling!
At length, when her sobs had ceased, he said, quietly—
"Forgive me. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings."
"It's all the same. It's no matter," she answered, listlessly, wiping her eyes with her hand. "I wish you would go away, though, and leave me alone. What do you want with me?"
"I want what I have always wanted: I want you for my wife."
She looked at him with stupid amazement, as if the real meaning of this already once declared desire had only just distinctly reached her mind, or as if the effect of its first announcement had been quite effaced by the succeeding outburst.
"Why, I thought you knew! You can't have heard—about me," she said.
"I have heard, I know all," he exclaimed, taking a step forward and standing over her. "Forgive me, darling! forgive me for being almost glad when I heard that you were free, and not married out of my reach. I can't think of anything except that I've found you. It is you, isn't it? It is you. I don't care what's happened to you, if it is only you."
As he spoke in this vehement, fiery way, she had been regarding him with an expression of faint curiosity. "I believe you do really mean it," she said, wonderingly, lingering over the words; "you always were a queer fellow."
"Mean it!" he exclaimed, kneeling before her, his voice all tremulous with the hope which the slightly yielding intonation of her words had given him. "Yes—yes—I mean it."
The faint ghost of a smile, which only brought out the sadness of her face, as a taper in a crypt reveals its gloom, hovered about her eyes.
"Poor boy!" she said; "I've, treated you very badly. I was going to make an end of myself this afternoon, but I will wait till you are tired of your fancy for me. It will make but little difference. There! there! Please don't kiss me."
He did not insist on their marriage taking place at once, although in her mood of dull indifference she would not have objected to anything he might have proposed. It was his hope that after a while she might become calmer, and more cheerful. He hoped to take in his at the altar a hand a little less like that of a dead person.
Introducing her as his betrothed wife, he found her very pleasant lodgings with an excellent family, where he was acquainted, provided her with books and a piano, took her constantly out to places of amusement, and, in every way which his ingenuity could suggest, endeavoured to distract and divert her. To all this she offered neither objection nor suggestion, nor did she, beyond the usual conventional responses, show the slightest gratitude. It was as if she took it for granted that he understood, as she did, that all this was being done for himself, and not for her, she being quite past having anything done for her. Her only recognition of the reverential and considerate tenderness which he showed her was an occasional air of wonder that cut him to the quick. Shame, sorrow, and despair had incrusted her heart with a hard shell, impenetrable to genial emotions. Nor would all his love help him to get over the impression that she was no longer an acquaintance and familiar friend, but somehow a stranger.
So far as he could find out, she did absolutely nothing all day except to sit brooding. He could not discover that she so much as opened the books and magazines he sent her, and, to the best of his knowledge, she made little more use of her piano. His calls were sadly dreary affairs. He would ask perhaps half a dozen questions, which he had spent much care in framing with a view to interesting her. She would reply in monosyllables, with sometimes a constrained smile or two, and then, after sitting a while in silence, he would take his hat and bid her good-evening.
She always sat nowadays in an attitude which he had never seen her adopt in former times, her hands lying in her lap before her, and an absent expression on her face. As he looked at her sitting thus, and recalled her former vivacious self-assertion and ever-new caprices, he was overcome with the sadness of the contrast.
Whenever he asked her about her health, she replied that she was well; and, indeed, she had that appearance. Grief is slow to sap the basis of a healthy physical constitution. She retained all the contour of cheek and rounded fulness of figure which had first captivated his fancy in the days, as it seemed, so long ago.
He took her often to the theatre, because in the action of the play she seemed at times momentarily carried out of herself. Once, when they were coming home from a play, she called attention to some feature of it. It was the first independent remark she had made since he had brought her to her lodgings. In itself it was of no importance at all, but he was overcome with delight, as people are delighted with the first words that show returning interest in earthly matters on the part of a convalescing friend whose soul has long been hovering on the borders of death. It would sound laughable to explain how much he made of that little remark, how he spun it out, and turned it in and out, and returned to it for days afterward. But it remained isolated. She did not make another.
Nevertheless, her mind was not so entirely torpid as it appeared, nor was she so absolutely self-absorbed. One idea was rising day by day out of the dark confusion of her thoughts, and that was the goodness and generosity of her lover. In this appreciation there was not the faintest glows of gratitude. She left herself wholly out of the account as only one could do with whom wretchedness has abolished for the time all interest in self. She was personally past being benefited. Her sense of his love and generosity was as disinterested as if some other person had been their object. Her admiration was such as one feels for a hero of history or fiction.
Often, when all within her seemed growing hard and still and dead, she felt that crying would make her feel better. At such times, to help her to cry, for the tears did not flow easily, she would sit down to the piano, the only times she ever touched it, and play over some of the simple airs associated with her life at home. Sometimes, after playing and crying a while, she would lapse into sweetly mournful day-dreams of how happy she might have been if she had returned Henry's love in those old days. She wondered in a puzzled way why it was that she had not. It seemed so strange to her now that she could have failed in doing so. But all this time it was only as a might-have-been that she thought of loving him, as one who feels himself mortally sick thinks of what he might have done when he was well, as a life-convict thinks of what he might have done when free, as a disembodied spirit might think of what it might have done when living. The consciousness of her disgrace, ever with her, had, in the past month or two, built up an impassable wall between her past life and her present state of existence. She no longer thought of herself in the present tense, still less the future.
He had not kissed her since that kiss at their first interview, which threw her into such a paroxysm of weeping. But one evening, when she had been more silent and dull than usual, and more unresponsive to his efforts to interest her, as he rose to go he drew her a moment to his side and pressed his lips to hers, as if constrained to find some expression for the tenderness so cruelly balked of any outflow in words. He went quickly out, but she continued to stand motionless, in the attitude of one startled by a sudden discovery. There was a frightened look in her dilated eyes. Her face was flooded to the roots of her hair with a deep flush. It was a crimson most unlike the tint of blissful shame with which the cheeks announce love's dawn in happy hearts. She threw herself upon the sofa, and buried her scorched face in the pillow while her form shook with dry sobs.
Love had, in a moment, stripped the protecting cicatrice of a hard indifference from her smarting shame, and it was as if for the first time she were made fully conscious of the desperation of her condition.
The maiden who finds her stainless purity all too lustreless a gift for him she loves, may fancy what were the feelings of Madeline, as love, with its royal longing to give, was born in her heart. With what lilies of virgin innocence would she fain have rewarded her lover! but her lilies were yellow, their fragrance was stale. With what an unworn crown would she have crowned him! but she had rifled her maiden regalia to adorn an impostor. And love came to her now, not as to others, but whetting the fangs of remorse and blowing the fires of shame.
But one thing it opened her eyes to, and made certain from the first instant of her new consciousness, namely, that since she loved him she could not keep her promise to marry him. In her previous mood of dead indifference to all things, it had not mattered to her one way or the other. Reckless what became of her, she had only a feeling that seeing he had been so good he ought to have any satisfaction he could find in marrying her. But what her indifference would have abandoned to him her love could not endure the thought of giving. The worthlessness of the gift, which before had not concerned her, now made its giving impossible. While before she had thought with indifference of submitting to a love she did not return, now that she returned it the idea of being happy in it seemed to her guilty and shameless. Thus to gather the honey of happiness from her own abasement was a further degradation, compared with which she could now almost respect herself. The consciousness that she had taken pleasure in that kiss made her seem to herself a brazen thing.
Her heart ached with a helpless yearning over him for the disappointment she knew he must now suffer at her hands. She tried, but in vain, to feel that she might, after all, marry him, might do this crowning violence to her nature, and accept a shameful happiness for his sake.
One morning a bitter thing happened to her. She had slept unusually well, and her dreams had been sweet and serene, untinged by any shadow of her waking thoughts, as if, indeed, the visions intended for the sleeping brain of some fortunate woman had by mistake strayed into hers. For a while she had lain, half dozing, half awake, pleasantly conscious of the soft, warm bed, and only half emerged from the atmosphere of dreamland. As at last she opened her eyes, the newly risen sun, bright from his ocean bath, was shining into the room, and the birds were singing. A lilac bush before the window was moving in the breeze, and the shadows of its twigs were netting the sunbeams on the wall as they danced to and fro.
The spirit of the jocund morn quite carried her away, and all unthinkingly she bounded out into the room and, stood there with a smile of sheer delight upon her face. She had forgotten all about her shame and sorrow. For an instant they were as completely gone from her mind as if they had never been, and for that instant nowhere did the sun's far-reaching eye rest on a blither or more innocent face. Then memory laid its icy finger on her heart and stilled its bounding pulse. The glad smile went out, like a taper quenched in Acheron, and she fell prone upon the floor, crying with hard, dry sobs, "O God! O God! O God!"
That day, and for many days afterward, she thought again and again of that single happy instant ere memory reclaimed its victim. It was the first for so long a time, and it was so very sweet, like a drop of water to one in torment. What a heaven a life must be which had many such moments! Was it possible that once, long ago, her life had been such an one—that she could awake mornings and not be afraid of remembering? Had there ever been a time when the ravens of shame and remorse had not perched above her bed as she slept, waiting her waking to plunge their beaks afresh into her heart? That instant of happiness which had been given her, how full it had been of blithe thanks to God and sympathy with the beautiful life of the world! Surely it showed that she was not bad, that she could have such a moment. It showed her heart was pure; it was only her memory that was foul. It was in vain that she swept and washed all within, and was good, when all the while her memory, like a ditch from a distant morass, emptied its vile stream of recollections into her heart, poisoning all the issues of life.
Years before, in one of the periodical religious revivals at Newville, she had passed through the usual girlish experience of conversion. Now, indeed, was a time when the heavenly compensations to which religion invites the thoughts of the sorrowful might surely have been a source of dome relief. But a certain cruel clearness of vision, or so at least it seemed to her, made all reflections on this theme but an aggravation of her despair. Since the shadow had fallen on her life, with every day the sense of shame and grief had grown more insupportable. In proportion as her loathing of the sin had grown, her anguish on account of it had increased. It was a poison-tree which her tears watered and caused to shoot forth yet deeper roots, yet wider branches, overspreading her life with ever denser, more noxious shadows. Since, then, on earth the purification of repentance does but deepen the soul's anguish over the past, how should it be otherwise in heaven, all through eternity? The pure in heart that see God, thought the unhappy girl, must only be those that have always been so, for such as become pure by repentance and tears do but see their impurity plainer every day.
Her horror of such a heaven, where through eternity perfect purification should keep her shame undying, taught her unbelief, and turned her for comfort to that other deep instinct of humanity, which sees in death the promise of eternal sleep, rest, and oblivion. In these days she thought much of poor George Bayley, and his talk in the prayer-meeting the night before he killed himself. By the mystic kinship that had declared itself between their sorrowful destinies, she felt a sense of nearness to him greater than her new love had given or ever could give her toward Henry. She recalled how she had sat listening to George's talk that evening, pitifully, indeed, but only half comprehending what he meant, with no dim, foreboding warning that she was fated to reproduce his experience so closely. Yes, reproduce it, perhaps, God only knew, even to the end. She could not bear this always. She understood now—ah! how well—his longing for the river of Lethe whose waters give forgetfulness. She often saw his pale face in dreams, wearing the smile he wore as he lay in the coffin, a smile as if he had been washed in those waters he sighed for.
Henry had not referred to their marriage after the first interview. From day to day, and week to week, he had put off doing so, hoping that she might grow into a more serene condition of mind. But in this respect the result had sadly failed to answer his expectation. He could not deny to himself that, instead of becoming more cheerful, she was relapsing into a more and more settled melancholy. From day to day he noted the change, like that of a gradual petrifaction, which went on in her face. It was as if before his eyes she were sinking into a fatal stupor, from which all his efforts could not rouse her.
There were moments when he experienced the chilling premonition of a disappointment, the possibility of which he still refused to actually entertain. He owned to himself that it was a harder task than he had thought to bring back to life one whose veins the frost of despair has chilled. There were, perhaps, some things too hard even for his love. It was doubly disheartening for him thus to lose confidence; not only on his own account, but on hers. Not only had he to ask himself what would become of his life in the event of failure, but what would become of hers? One day overcome by this sort of discouragement, feeling that he was not equal to the case, that matters were growing worse instead of better, and that he needed help from some source, he asked Madeline if he had not better write to her mother to come to Boston, so that they two could keep house together.
"No," she said in a quick, startled voice, looking up at him in a scared way.
He hastened to reassure her, and say that he had not seriously thought of it, but he noticed that during the rest of the evening she cast furtive glances of apprehension at him, as if suspicious that he had some plot against her. She had fled from home because she could not bear her mother's eyes.
Meanwhile he was becoming almost as preoccupied and gloomy as she, and their dreary interviews grew more dreary than ever, for she was now scarcely more silent than he. His constant and increasing anxiety, in addition to the duties of a responsible business position, began to tell on his health. The owner of the manufactory of which he was superintendent, called him into his office one day, and told him he was working too hard, and must take a little vacation. But he declined. Soon after a physician whom he knew buttonholed him on the street, and managed to get in some shrewd questions about his health. Henry owned he did not sleep much nights. The doctor said he must take a vacation, and, this being declared impossible, forced a box of sleeping powders on him, and made him promise to try them.
All this talk about his health; as well as his own sensations, set him to thinking of the desperate position in which Madeline would be left in the event of his serious sickness or death.
That very day he made up his mind that it would not do to postpone their marriage any longer. It seemed almost brutal to urge it on her in her present frame of mind, and yet it was clearly out of the question to protract the present situation.
The quarter of the city in which he resided was suburban, and he went home every night by the steam cars. As he sat in the car that evening waiting for the train to start, two gentlemen in the seat behind fell to conversing about a new book on mental physiology, embodying the latest discoveries. They kept up a brisk talk on this subject till Henry left the car. He could not, however, have repeated a single thing which they had said. Preoccupied with his own thoughts, he had only been dimly conscious what they were talking about. His ears had taken in their words, but he had heard as not hearing.
After tea, in the gloaming, he called, as usual, on Madeline. After a few casual words, he said, gently—
"Madeline, you remember you promised to marry me a few weeks ago. I have not hurried you, but I want you now. There is no use in waiting any longer, dear, and I want you."
She was sitting in a low chair, her hands folded in her lap, and as he spoke her head sank so low upon her breast that he could not see her face. He was silent for some moments waiting a reply, but she made none.
"I know it was only for my sake you promised," he said again. "I know it will be nothing to you, and yet I would not press you if I did not think I could make you happier so. I will give up my business for a time, and we will travel and see the world a little."
Still she did not speak, but it was to some extent a reassurance to him that she showed no agitation.
"Are you willing that we should be married in a few days?" he asked.
She lifted her head slowly, and looked at him steadfastly.
"You are right," she said. "It is useless to keep on this way any longer."
"You consent, then?" said he, quite encouraged by her quiet air and apparent willingness.
"Don't press me for an answer to-night," she replied, after a pause, during which she regarded him with a singular fixity of expression. "Wait till to-morrow. You shall have an answer to-morrow. You are quite right. I've been thinking so myself. It is no use to put it off any longer."
He spoke to her once or twice after this, but she was gazing out through the window into the darkening sky, and did not seem to hear him. He rose to go, and had already reached the hail, when she called him—
"Come back a moment Henry."
He came back.
"I want you to kiss me," she said.
She was standing in the middle of the room. Her tall figure in its black dress was flooded with the weird radiance of the rising moon, nor was the moonshine whiter than her cheek, nor sadder than her steadfast eyes. Her lips were soft and yielding, clinging, dewy wet. He had never thought a kiss could be so sweet, and yet he could have wept, he knew not why.
When he reached his lodgings he was in an extremely nervous condition. In spite of all that was painful and depressing in the associations of the event, the idea of having Madeline for his wife in a few days more had power to fill him with feverish excitement, an excitement all the more agitating because it was so composite in its elements, and had so little in common with the exhilaration and light-heartedness of successful lovers in general. He took one of the doctor's sleeping powders, tried to read a dry book oil electricity, endeavoured to write a business letter, smoked a cigar, and finally went to bed.
It seemed to him that he went all the next day in a dazed, dreaming state, until the moment when he presented himself, after tea, at Madeline's lodgings, and she opened the door to him. The surprise which he then experienced was calculated to arouse him had he been indeed dreaming. His first thought was that she had gone crazy, or else had been drinking wine to raise her spirits; for there was a flush of excitement on either cheek, and her eyes were bright and unsteady. In one hand she held, with a clasp that crumpled the leaves, a small scientific magazine, which he recognized as having been one of a bundle of periodicals that he had sent her. With her other hand, instead of taking the hand which he extended, she clutched his arm and almost pulled him inside the door.
"Henry, do you remember what George Bayley said that might in meeting, about the river of Lethe, in which, souls were bathed and forgot the past?"
"I remember something about it," he answered.
"There is such a river. It was not a fable. It has been found again," she cried.
"Come and sit down, dear don't excite yourself so much. We will talk quietly," he replied, with a pitiful effort to speak soothingly, for he made no question that her long brooding had affected her mind.
"Quietly! How do you suppose I can talk quietly?" she exclaimed excitedly, in her nervous irritation throwing off the hand which he had laid on her arm. "Henry, see here, I want to ask you something. Supposing anybody had done something bad and had been very sorry for it, and then had forgotten it all, forgotten it wholly, would you think that made them good again? Would it seem so to you? Tell me!"
"Yes, surely; but it isn't necessary they should forget, so long us they're sorry."
"But supposing they had forgotten too?"
"Yes, surely, it would be as if it had never been."
"Henry," she said, her voice dropping to a low, hushed tone of wonder, while her eyes were full of mingled awe and exultation, "what if I were to forget it, forget that you know, forget it all, everything, just as if it had never been?"
He stared at her with fascinated eyes. She was, indeed, beside herself. Grief had made her mad.. The significance of his expression seemed to recall her to herself, and she said—
"You don't understand. Of course not. You think I'm crazy. Here, take it. Go somewhere and read it. Don't stay here to do it. I couldn't stand to look on. Go! Hurry! Read it, and then come back."
She thrust the magazine into his hand, and almost pushed him out of the door. But he went no further than the hall. He could not think of leaving her in that condition. Then it occurred to him to look at the magazine. He opened it by the light of the hall lamp, and his eyes fell on these words, the title of an article: "The Extirpation of Thought Processes. A New Invention."
If she were crazy, here was at least the clue to her condition. He read on; his eyes leaped along the lines.
The writer began with a clear account of the discoveries of modern psychologists and physiologists as to the physical basis of the intellect, by which it has been ascertained that certain ones of the millions of nerve corpuscles or fibres in the grey substance in the brain, record certain classes of sensations and the ideas directly connected with them, other classes of sensations with the corresponding ideas being elsewhere recorded by other groups of corpuscles. These corpuscles of the grey matter, these mysterious and infinitesimal hieroglyphics, constitute the memory of the record of the life, so that when any particular fibre or group of fibres is destroyed certain memories or classes of memories are destroyed, without affecting others which are elsewhere embodied in other fibres. Of the many scientific and popular demonstrations of these facts which were adduced, reference was made to the generally known fact that the effect of disease or injury at certain points in the brain is to destroy definite classes of acquisitions or recollections, leaving others untouched. The article then went on to refer to the fact that one of the known effects of the galvanic battery as medically applied, is to destroy and dissolve morbid tissues, while leaving healthy ones unimpaired. Given then a patient, who by excessive indulgence of any particular train of thought, had brought the group of fibres which were the physical seat of such thoughts into a diseased condition, Dr. Gustav Heidenhoff had invented a mode of applying the galvanic battery so as to destroy the diseased corpuscles, and thus annihilate the class of morbid ideas involved beyond the possibility of recollection, and entirely without affecting other parts of the brain or other classes of ideas. The doctor saw patients Tuesdays and Saturdays at his office, 79 —— Street.
Madeline was not crazy, thought Henry, as still standing under the hall lamp he closed the article, but Dr. Heidenhoff certainly was. Never had such a sad sense of the misery of her condition been borne in upon him, as when he reflected that it had been able to make such a farrago of nonsense seem actually creditable to her. Overcome with poignant sympathy, and in serious perplexity how best he could deal with her excited condition, he slipped out of the house and walked for an hour about the streets. Returning, he knocked again at the door of her parlour.
"Have you read it?" she asked, eagerly, as she opened it.
"Yes, I've read it. I did not mean to send you such trash. The man must be either an escaped lunatic or has tried his hand at a hoax. It is a tissue of absurdity."
He spoke bluntly, almost harshly, because he was in terror at the thought that she might be allowing herself to be deluded by this wild and baseless fancy, but he looked away as he spoke. He could not bear to see the effect of his words.
"It is not absurd," she cried, clasping his arm convulsively with both hands so that she hurt him, and looking fiercely at him out of hot, fevered eyes. "It is the most reasonable thing in the world. It must be true. There can be no mistake. God would not let me be so deceived. He is not so cruel. Don't tell me anything else."
She was in such a hysterical condition that he saw he must be very gentle.
"But, Madeline, you will admit that if he is not the greatest of all discoverers, he must be a dangerous quack. His process might kill you or make you insane. It must be very perilous."
"If I knew there were a hundred chances that it would kill me to one that it would succeed, do you think I would hesitate?" she cried.
The utmost concession that he could obtain her consent to was that he should first visit this Dr. Heidenhoff alone, and make some inquiries of and about him.
The next day he called at 79 —— Street. There was a modest shingle bearing the name "Dr. Gustav Heidenhoff" fastened up on the side of the house, which was in the middle of a brick block. On announcing that he wanted to see the doctor, he was ushered into a waiting-room, whose walls were hung with charts of the brain and nervous system, and presently a tall, scholarly-looking man, with a clean-shaven face, frosty hair, and very genial blue eyes, deep set beneath extremely bushy grey eyebrows, entered and announced himself as Dr. Heidenhoff. Henry, who could not help being very favourably impressed by his appearance, opened the conversation by saying that he wanted to make some inquiries about the Thought-extirpation process in behalf of a friend who was thinking of trying it. The doctor, who spoke English with idiomatic accuracy, though with a slightly German accent, expressed his willingness to give him all possible information, and answered all his questions with great apparent candour, illustrating his explanations by references to the charts which covered the walls of the office. He took him into an inner office and showed his batteries, and explained that the peculiarity of his process consisted, not in any new general laws and facts of physiology which he had discovered, but entirely in peculiarities in his manner of applying his galvanic current, talking much about apodes, cathodes, catelectrotonus and anelectrotonus, resistance and rheostat, reactions, fluctuations, and other terms of galvano-therapeutics. The doctor frankly admitted that he was not in a way of making a great deal of money or reputation by his discovery. It promised too much, and people consequently thought it must be quackery, and as sufficient proof of this he mentioned that he had now been five years engaged in practising the Thought-extirpation process without having attained any considerable celebrity or attracting a great number of patients. But he had a sufficient support in other branches of medical practice, he added, and, so long as he had patients enough for experimentation with the aim of improving the process, he was quite satisfied.
He listened with great interest to Henry's account of Madeline's case. The success of galvanism in obliterating the obnoxious train of recollections in her case would depend, he said, on whether it had been indulged to an extent to bring about a morbid state of the brain fibres concerned. What might be conventionally or morally morbid or objectionable, was not, however, necessarily disease in the material sense, and nothing but experiment could absolutely determine whether the two conditions coincided in any case. At any rate, he positively assured Henry that no harm could ensue to the patient, whether the operation succeeded or not.
"It is a pity, young man," he said, with a flash of enthusiasm, "that you don't come to me twenty years later. Then I could guarantee your friend the complete extirpation of any class of inconvenient recollections she might desire removed, whether they were morbid or healthy; for since the great fact of the physical basis of the intellect has been established, I deem it only a question of time when science shall have so accurately located the various departments of thought and mastered the laws of their processes, that, whether by galvanism or some better process, the mental physician will be able to extract a specific recollection from the memory as readily as a dentist pulls a tooth, and as finally, so far as the prevention of any future twinges in that quarter are concerned. Macbeth's question, 'Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased; pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow; raze out the written troubles of the brain?' was a puzzler to the sixteenth century doctor, but he of the twentieth, yes, perhaps of the nineteenth, will be able to answer it affirmatively."
"Is the process at all painful ?"
"In no degree, my dear sir. Patients have described to me their sensations many times, and their testimony is quite in agreement. When the circuit is closed there is a bubbling, murmurous sound in the ears, a warm sensation where the wires touch the cranium, and a feeling as of a motion through the brain, entering at one point and going out at another. There are also sparks of fire seen under the closed eyelids, an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and a sensation of smell; that is all."
"But the mental sensations ?" said Henry. "I should think they must be very peculiar, the sense of forgetting in spite of one's self, for I suppose the patient's mind is fixed on the very thoughts which the intent of the operation is to extirpate."
"Peculiar? Oh no, not at all peculiar," replied the doctor. "There are abundant analogies for it in our daily experience. From the accounts of patients I infer that it is not different from one's sensations in falling asleep while thinking of something. You know that we find ourselves forgetting preceding links in the train of thought, and in turning back to recall what went before, what came after is meanwhile forgotten, the clue is lost, and we yield to a pleasing bewilderment which is presently itself forgotten in sleep. The next morning we may or may not recall the matter. The only difference is that after the deep sleep which always follows the application of my process we never recall it, that is, if the operation has been successful. It seems to involve no more interference with the continuity of the normal physical and mental functions than does an afternoon's nap."
"But the after-effects!" persisted Henry. "Patients must surely feel that they have forgotten something, even if they do not know what it is. They must feel that there is something gone out of their minds. I should think this sensation would leave them in a painfully bewildered state."
"There seems to be a feeling of slight confusion," said the doctor; "but it is not painful, not more pronounced, indeed, than that of persons who are trying to bring back a dream which they remember having had without being able to recall the first thing about what it was. Of course, the patient subsequently finds shreds and fragments of ideas, as well as facts in his external relations, which, having been connected with the extirpated subject, are now unaccountable. About these the feeling is, I suppose, like that of a man who, when he gets over a fit of drunkenness or somnambulism, finds himself unable to account for things which he has unconsciously said or done. The immediate effect of the operation, as I intimated before, is to leave the patient very drowsy, and the first desire is to sleep."
"Doctor," said Henry, "when you talk it all seems for the moment quite reasonable, but you will pardon me for saying that, as soon as you stop, the whole thing appears to be such an incredible piece of nonsense that I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming."
The doctor smiled.
"Well," said he, "I have been so long engaged in the practical application of the process that I confess I can't realize any element of the strange or mysterious about it. To the eye of the philosopher nothing is wonderful, or else you may say all things are equally so. The commonest and so-called simplest fact in the entire order of nature is precisely as marvellous and incomprehensible at bottom as the most uncommon and startling. You will pardon me if I say that it is only to the unscientific that it seems otherwise. But really, my dear sir, my process for the extirpation of thoughts was but the most obvious consequence of the discovery that different classes of sensations and ideas are localized in the brain, and are permanently identified with particular groups of corpuscles of the grey matter. As soon as that was known, the extirpating of special clusters of thoughts became merely a question of mechanical difficulties to be overcome, merely a nice problem in surgery, and not more complex than many which my brethren have solved in lithotomy and lithotrity, for instance."
"I suppose what makes the idea a little more startling," said Henry, "is the odd intermingling of moral and physical conceptions in the idea of curing pangs of conscience by a surgical operation."
"I should think that intermingling ought not to be very bewildering," replied the doctor, "since it is the usual rule. Why is it more curious to cure remorse by a physical act than to cause remorse by a physical act? And I believe such is the origin of most remorse."
"Yes," said Henry, still struggling to preserve his mental equilibrium against this general overturning of his prejudices. "Yes, but the mind consents to the act which causes the remorse, and I suppose that is what gives it a moral quality."
"Assuredly," replied the doctor; "and I take it for granted that patients don't generally come to me unless they have experienced very genuine and profound regret and sorrow for the act they wish to forget. They have already repented it, and, according to every theory of moral accountability, I believe it is held that repentance balances the moral accounts. My process, you see then, only completes physically what is already done morally. The ministers and moralists preach forgiveness and absolution on repentance, but the perennial fountain of the penitent's tears testifies how empty and vain such assurances are. I fulfil what they promise. They tell the penitent he is forgiven. I free him from his sin. Remorse and shame and wan regret have wielded their cruel sceptres over human lives from the beginning until now. Seated within the mysterious labyrinths of the brain, they have deemed their sway secure, but the lightning of science has reached them on their thrones and set their bondmen free;" and with an impressive gesture the doctor touched the battery at his side.
Without giving further details of his conversation with this strange Master of Life, it is sufficient to say that Henry finally agreed upon an appointment for Madeline on the following day, feeling something as if he were making an unholy compact with the devil. He could not possibly have said whether he really expected anything from it or not. His mind had been in a state of bewilderment and constant fluctuation during the entire interview, at one moment carried away by the contagious confidence of the doctor's tone, and impressed by his calm, clear, scientific explanations and the exhibition of the electrical apparatus, and the next moment reacting into utter scepticism and contemptuous impatience with himself for even listening to such a preposterous piece of imposition. By the time he had walked half a block, the sights and sounds of the busy street, with their practical and prosaic suggestions, had quite dissipated the lingering influence of the necromantic atmosphere of Dr. Heidenhoff's office, and he was sure that he had been a fool.
He went to see Madeline that evening, with his mind made up to avoid telling her, if possible, that he had made the appointment, and to make such a report as should induce her to dismiss the subject. But he found it was quite impossible to maintain any such reticence toward one in her excited and peremptory mood. He was forced to admit the fact of the appointment.
"Why didn't you make it in the forenoon?" she demanded.
"What for? It is only a difference of a few hours," he replied.
"And don't you think a few hours is anything to me?" she cried, bursting into hysterical tears.
"You must not be so confident," he expostulated. "It scares me to see you so when you are so likely to be disappointed. Even the doctor said he could not promise success. It would depend on many things."
"What is the use of telling me that ?" she said, suddenly becoming very calm. "When I've just one chance for life, do you think it is kind to remind me that it may fail? Let me alone to-night."
The mental agitation of the past two days, supervening on so long a period of profound depression, had thrown her into a state of agitation bordering on hysteria. She was constantly changing her attitude, rising and seating herself, and walking excitedly about. She would talk rapidly one moment, and then relapse into a sudden chilled silence in which she seemed to hear nothing. Once or twice she laughed a hard, unnatural laugh of pure nervousness.
Presently she said—
"After I've forgotten all about myself, and no longer remember any reason why I shouldn't marry you, you will still remember what I've forgotten, and perhaps you won't want me."
"You know very well that I want you any way, and just the same whatever happens or doesn't happen," he answered.
"I wonder whether it will be fair to let you marry me after I've forgotten," she continued, thoughtfully. "I don't know, but I ought to make you promise now that you won't ask me to be your wife, for, of course, I shouldn't then know any reason for refusing you."
"I wouldn't promise that."
"Oh, but you wouldn't do so mean a thing as to take an unfair advantage of my ignorance," she replied. "Any way, I now release you from your engagement to marry me, and leave you to do as you choose tomorrow after I've forgotten. I would make you promise not to let me marry you then, if I did not feel that utter forgetfulness of the past will leave me as pure and as good as if—as if—I were like other women;" and she burst into tears, and cried bitterly for a while.
The completeness with which she had given herself up to the belief that on the morrow her memory was to be wiped clean of the sad past, alternately terrified him and momentarily seduced him to share the same fool's paradise of fancy. And it is needless to say that the thought of receiving his wife to his arms as fresh and virgin in heart and memory as when her girlish beauty first entranced him, was very sweet to his imagination.
"I suppose I'll have mother with me then," she said, musingly. "How strange it will be! I've been thinking about it all day. I shall often find her looking at me oddly, and ask her what she is thinking of, and she will put me off. Why, Henry, I feel as dying persons do about having people look at their faces after they are dead. I shouldn't like to have any of my enemies who knew all about me see me after I've forgotten. You'll take care that they don't, won't you, Henry?"
"Why, dear, that is morbid. What is it to a dead person, whose soul is in heaven, who looks at his dead face? It will be so with you after to-morrow if the process succeeds."
She thought a while, and then said, shaking her head—
"Well, anyhow, I'd rather none but my friends, of those who used to know me, should see me. You'll see to it, Henry. You may look at me all you please, and think of what you please as you look. I don't care to take away the memory of anything from you. I don't believe a woman ever trusted a man as I do you. I'm sure none ever had reason to. I should be sorry if you didn't know all my faults. If there's a record to be kept of them anywhere in the universe, I'd rather it should be in your heart than anywhere else, unless, maybe, God has a heart like yours;" and she smiled at him through those sweetest tears that ever well up in human eyes, the tears of a limitless and perfect trust.
At one o'clock the next afternoon Madeline was sitting on the sofa in Dr. Heidenhoff's reception-room with compressed lips and pale cheeks, while Henry was nervously striding to and fro across the room, and furtively watching her with anxious looks. Neither had had much to say that morning.
"All ready," said the doctor, putting his head in at the door of his office and again disappearing. Madeline instantly rose. Henry put his hand on her arm, and said—
"Remember, dear, this was your idea, not mine, and if the experiment fails that makes no difference to me." She bowed her head without replying, and they went into the office. Madeline, trembling and deadly pale, sat down in the operating chair, and her head was immovably secured by padded clamps. She closed her eyes and put her hand in Henry's.
"Now," said the doctor to her, "fix your attention on the class of memories which you wish destroyed; the electric current more readily follows the fibres which are being excited by the present passage of nervous force. Touch my arm when you find your thoughts somewhat concentrated."
In a few moments she pressed the doctor's arm, and instantly the murmurous, bubbling hum of the battery began. She, clasped Henry's hand a little firmer, but made no other sign. The noise stopped. The doctor was removing the clamps. She opened her eyes and closed them again drowsily.
"Oh, I'm so sleepy."
"You shall lie down and take a nap," said the doctor.
There was a little retiring-room connected with the office where there was a sofa. No sooner had she laid her head on the pillow than she fell asleep. The doctor and Henry remained in the operating office, the door into the retiring-room being just ajar, so that they could hear her when she awoke.
"How long will she sleep, doctor?" asked Henry, after satisfying himself by looking through the crack of the door that she was actually asleep.
"Patients do not usually wake under an hour or two," replied the doctor. "She was very drowsy, and that is a good sign. I think we may have the best hopes of the result of the operation."
Henry walked restlessly to and fro. After Dr. Heidenhoff had regarded him a few moments, he said—
"You are nervous, sir. There is quite a time to wait, and it is better to remain as calm as possible, for, in the event of an unsatisfactory result, your friend will need soothing, and you will scarcely be equal to that if you are yourself excited. I have some very fair cigars here. Do me the honour to try one. I prescribe it medicinally. Your nerves need quieting;" and he extended his cigar-case to the young man.
As Henry with a nod of acknowledgment took a cigar and lit it, and resumed his striding to and fro, the doctor, who had seated himself comfortably, began to talk, apparently with the kindly intent of diverting the other's mind.
"There are a number of applications of the process I hope to make, which will be rather amusing experiments. Take, for instance, the case of a person who has committed a murder, come to me, and forgotten all about it. Suppose he is subsequently arrested, and the fact ascertained that while he undoubtedly committed the crime, he cannot possibly recall his guilt, and so far as his conscience is concerned, is as innocent as a new-born babe, what then? What do you think the authorities would do?"
"I think," said Henry, "that they would be very much puzzled what to do."
"Exactly," said the doctor; "I think so too. Such a case would bring out clearly the utter confusion and contradiction in which the current theories of ethics and moral responsibility are involved. It is time the world was waked up on that subject. I should hugely enjoy precipitating such a problem on the community. I'm hoping every day a murderer will come in and require my services.
"There is another sort of case which I should also like to have," he continued; shifting his cigar to the other side of his mouth, and uncrossing and recrossing his knees. "Suppose a man has dons another a great wrong, and, being troubled by remorse, comes to me and has the sponge of oblivion passed over that item in his memory. Suppose the man he has wronged, pursuing him with a heart full of vengeance, gets him at last in his power, but at the same time finds out that he has forgotten, and can't be made to remember, the act he desires to punish him for."
"It would be very vexatious," said Henry..
"Wouldn't it, though? I can imagine the pursuer, the avenger, if a really virulent fellow, actually weeping tears of despite as he stands before his victim and marks the utter unconsciousness of any offence with which his eyes meet his own. Such a look would blunt the very stiletto of a Corsican. What sweetness would there be in vengeance if the avenger, as he plunged the dagger in his victim's bosom, might not hiss in his ear, 'Remember!' As well find satisfaction in torturing an idiot or mutilating a corpse. I am not talking now of brutish fellows, who would kick a stock or stone which they stumbled over, but of men intelligent enough to understand what vengeance is."
"But don't you fancy the avenger, in the case you supposed, would retain some bitterness towards his enemy, even though he had forgotten the offence?"
"I fancy he would always feel a certain cold dislike and aversion for him," replied the doctor—"an aversion such as one has for an object or an animal associated with some painful experience; but any active animosity would be a moral impossibility, if he were quite certain that there was absolutely no guilty consciousness on the other's part.
"But scarcely any application of the process gives me so much pleasure to dream about as its use to make forgiving possible, full, free, perfect, joyous forgiving, in cases where otherwise, however good our intentions, it is impossible, simply because we cannot forget. Because they cannot forget, friends must part from friends who have wronged them, even though they do from their hearts wish them well. But they must leave them, for they cannot bear to look in their eyes and be reminded every time of some bitter thing. To all such what good tidings will it be to learn of my process!
"Why, when the world gets to understand about it I expect that two men or two women, or a man and a woman, will come in here, and say to me, 'We have quarrelled and outraged each other, we have injured our friend, our wife, our husband; we regret, we would forgive, but we cannot, because we remember. Put between us the atonement of forgetfulness, that we may love each other as of old,' and so joyous will be the tidings of forgiveness made easy and perfect, that none will be willing to waste even an hour in enmity. Raging foes in the heat of their first wrath will bethink themselves ere they smite, and come to me for a more perfect satisfaction of their feud than any vengeance could promise."
Henry suddenly stopped in his restless pacing, stepped on tiptoe to the slightly opened door of the retiring room, and peered anxiously in. He thought he heard a slight stir. But no; she was still sleeping deeply, her position quite unchanged. He drew noiselessly back, and again almost closed the door.
"I suppose," resumed the doctor, after a pause, "that I must prepare myself as soon as the process gets well enough known to attract attention to be roundly abused by the theologians and moralists. I mean, of course, the thicker-headed ones. They'll say I've got a machine for destroying conscience, and am sapping the foundations of society. I believe that is the phrase. The same class of people will maintain that it's wrong to cure the moral pain which results from a bad act who used to think it wrong to cure the physical diseases induced by vicious indulgence. But the outcry won't last long, for nobody will be long in seeing that the morality of the two kinds of cures is precisely the same, If one is wrong, the other is. If there is something holy and God-ordained in the painful consequences of sin, it is as wrong to meddle with those consequences when they are physical as when they are mental. The alleged reformatory effect of such suffering is as great in one case as the other. But, bless you, nobody nowadays holds that a doctor ought to refuse to set a leg which its owner broke when drunk or fighting, so that the man may limp through life as a warning to himself and others.
"I know some foggy-minded people hold in a vague way that the working of moral retribution is somehow more intelligent, just, and equitable than the working of physical retribution. They have a nebulous notion that the law of moral retribution is in some peculiar way God's law, while the law of physical retribution is the law of what they call nature, somehow not quite so much God's law as the other is. Such an absurdity only requires to be stated to be exposed. The law of moral retribution is precisely as blind, deaf, and meaningless, and entitled to be respected just as little, as the law of physical retribution. Why, sir, of the two, the much-abused law of physical retribution is decidedly more moral, in the sense of obvious fairness, than the so-called law of moral retribution itself. For, while the hardened offender virtually escapes all pangs of conscience, he can't escape the diseases and accidents which attend vice and violence. The whole working of moral retribution, on the contrary, is to torture the sensitive-souled, who would never do much harm any way, while the really hard cases of society, by their very hardness, avoid all suffering. And then, again, see how merciful and reformatory is the working of physical retribution compared with the pitilessness of the moral retribution of memory. A man gets over his accident or disease and is healthy again, having learned his lesson with the renewed health that alone makes it of any value to have had that lesson. But shame and sorrow for sin and disgrace go on for ever increasing in intensity, in proportion as they purify the soul. Their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched. The deeper the repentance, the more intense the longing and love for better things, the more poignant the pang of regret and the sense of irreparable loss. There is no sense, no end, no use, in this law which increases the severity of the punishment as the victim grows in innocency.
"Ah, sir," exclaimed the doctor, rising and laying his hand caressingly on the battery, while a triumphant exultation shone in his eyes, "you have no idea of the glorious satisfaction I take in crushing, destroying, annihilating these black devils of evil memories that feed on hearts. It is a triumph like a god's.
"But oh, the pity of it, the pity of it!" he added, sadly, as his hand fell by his side, "that this so simple discovery has come so late in the world's history! Think of the infinite multitude of lives it would have redeemed from the desperation of hopelessness, or the lifelong shadow of paralysing grief to all manner of sweet, good, and joyous uses!"
Henry opened the door slightly, and looked into the retiring-room. Madeline was lying perfectly motionless, as he had seen her before. She had not apparently moved a muscle. With a sudden fear at his heart, he softly entered, and on tiptoe crossed the room and stood over her. The momentary fear was baseless. Her bosom rose and fell with long, full breathing, the faint flush of healthy sleep tinged her cheek, and the lips were relaxed in a smile. It was impossible not to feel, seeing her slumbering so peacefully, that the marvellous change had been indeed wrought, and the cruel demons of memory that had so often lurked behind the low, white forehead were at last no more.
When he returned to the office, Dr. Heidenhoff had seated himself, and was contemplatively smoking.
"She was sleeping, I presume," he said.
"Soundly," replied Henry.
"That is well. I have the best of hopes. She is young. That is a favourable element in an operation of this sort."
Henry said nothing, and there was a considerable silence. Finally the doctor observed, with the air of a man who thinks it just as well to spend the time talking—
"I am fond of speculating what sort of a world, morally speaking, we should have if there were no memory. One thing is clear, we should have no such very wicked people as we have now. There would, of course, be congenitally good and bad dispositions, but a bad disposition would not grow worse and worse as it does now, and without this progressive badness the depths of depravity are never attained."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because it is the memory of our past sins which demoralizes as, by imparting a sense of weakness and causing loss of self-respect. Take the memory away, and a bad act would leave us no worse in character than we were before its commission, and not a whit more likely to repeat it than we were to commit it the first time."
"But surely our good or bad acts impress our own characters for good or evil, and give an increased tendency one way or the other."
"Excuse me, my dear sir. Acts merely express the character. The recollection of those acts is what impresses the character, and gives it a tendency in a particular direction. And that is why I say, if memory were abolished, constitutionally bad people would remain at their original and normal degree of badness, instead of going from bad to worse, as they always have done hitherto in the history of mankind. Memory is the principle of moral degeneration. Remembered sin is the most utterly diabolical influence in the universe. It invariably either debauches or martyrizes men and women, accordingly as it renders them desperate and hardened, or makes them a prey to undying grief and self-contempt. When I consider that more sin is the only anodyne for sin, and that the only way to cure the ache of conscience is to harden it, I marvel that even so many as do essay the bitter and hopeless way of repentance and reform. In the main, the pangs of conscience, so much vaunted by some, do most certainly drive ten deeper into sin where they bring one back to virtue."
"But," remarked Henry, "suppose there were no memory, and men did forget their acts, they would remain just as responsible for them as now."
"Precisely; that is, not at all," replied the doctor.
"You don't mean to say there is no such thing as responsibility, no such thing as justice. Oh, I see, you deny free will. You are a necessitarian."
The doctor waved his hand rather contemptuously.
"I know nothing about your theological distinctions; I am a doctor. I say that there is no such thing as moral responsibility for past acts, no such thing as real justice in punishing them, for the reason that human beings are not stationary existences, but changing, growing, incessantly progressive organisms, which in no two moments are the same. Therefore justice, whose only possible mode of proceeding is to punish in present time for what is done in past time, must always punish a person more or less similar to, but never identical with, the one who committed the offence, and therein must be no justice.
"Why, sir, it is no theory of mine, but the testimony of universal consciousness, if you interrogate it aright, that the difference between the past and present selves of the same individual is so great as to make them different persons for all moral purposes. That single fact we were just speaking of—the fact that no man would care for vengeance on one who had injured him, provided he knew that all memory of the offence had been blotted utterly from his enemy's mind—proves the entire proposition. It shows that it is not the present self of his enemy that the avenger is angry with at all, but the past self. Even in the blindness of his wrath he intuitively recognizes the distinction between the two. He only hates the present man, and seeks vengeance on him in so far as he thinks that he exults in remembering the injury his past self did, or, if he does not exult, that he insults and humiliates him by the bare fact of remembering it. That is the continuing offence which alone keeps alive the avenger's wrath against him. His fault is not that he did the injury, for he did not do it, but that he remembers it.
"It is the first principle of justice, isn't it, that nobody ought to be punished for what he can't help? Can the man of to-day prevent or affect what he did yesterday, let me say, rather, what the man did out of whom he has grown—has grown, I repeat, by a physical process which he could not check save by suicide. As well punish him for Adam's sin, for he might as easily have prevented that, and is every whit as accountable for it. You pity the child born, without his choice, of depraved parents. Pity the man himself, the man of today who, by a process as inevitable as the child's birth, has grown on the rotten stock of yesterday. Think you, that it is not sometimes with a sense of loathing and horror unutterable, that he feels his fresh life thus inexorably knitting itself on, growing on, to that old stem? For, mind you well, the consciousness of the man exists alone in the present day and moment. There alone he lives. That is himself. The former days are his dead, for whose sins, in which he had no part, which perchance by his choice never would have been done, he is held to answer and do penance. And you thought, young man, that there was such a thing as justice !"
"I can see," said Henry, after a pause, "that when half a lifetime has intervened between a crime and its punishment, and the man has reformed, there is a certain lack of identity. I have always thought punishments in such cases very barbarous. I know that I should think it hard to answer for what I may have done as a boy, twenty years ago.
"Yes," said the doctor, "flagrant cases of that sort take the general eye, and people say that they are instances of retribution rather than justice. The unlikeness between the extremes of life, as between the babe and the man, the lad and the dotard, strikes every mind, and all admit that there is not any apparent identity between these widely parted points in the progress of a human organism. How then? How soon does identity begin to decay, and when is it gone—in one year, five years, ten years, twenty years, or how many? Shall we fix fifty years as the period of a moral statute of limitation, after which punishment shall be deemed barbarous? No, no. The gulf between the man of this instant and the man of the last is just as impassable as that between the baby and the man. What is past is eternally past. So far as the essence of justice is concerned, there is no difference between one of the cases of punishment which you called barbarous, and one in which the penalty follows the offence within the hour. There is no way of joining the past with the present, and there is no difference between what is a moment past and what is eternally past."
"Then the assassin as he withdraws the stiletto from his victim's breast is not the same man who plunged it in."
"Obviously not," replied the doctor. "He may be exulting in the deed, or, more likely, he may be in a reaction of regret. He may be worse, he may be better. His being better or worse makes it neither more nor less just to punish him, though it may make it more or less expedient. Justice demands identity; similarity, however close, will not answer. Though a mother could not tell her twin sons apart, it would not make it any more just to punish one for the other's sins."
"Then you don't believe in the punishment of crime?" said Henry.
"Most emphatically I do," replied the doctor; "only I don't believe in calling it justice or ascribing it a moral significance. The punishment of criminals is a matter of public policy and expediency, precisely like measures for the suppression of nuisances or the prevention of epidemics. It is needful to restrain those who by crime have revealed their likelihood to commit further crimes, and to furnish by their punishment a motive to deter others from crime."
"And to deter the criminal himself after his release," added Henry.
"I included him in the word 'others,'" said the doctor. "The man who is punished is other from the man who did the act, and after punishment he is still other."
"Really, doctor," observed Henry, "I don't see that a man who fully believes your theory is in any need of your process for obliterating his sins. He won't think of blaming himself for them any way."
"True," said the doctor, "perfectly true. My process is for those who cannot attain to my philosophy. I break for the weak the chain of memory which holds them to the past; but stronger souls are independent of me. They can unloose the iron links and free themselves. Would that more had the needful wisdom and strength thus serenely to put their past behind them, leaving the dead to bury their dead, and go blithely forward, taking each new day as a life by itself, and reckoning themselves daily new-born, even as verily they are! Physically, mentally, indeed, the present must be for ever the outgrowth of the past, conform to its conditions, bear its burdens; but moral responsibility for the past the present has none, and by the very definition of the words can have none. There is no need to tell people that they ought to regret and grieve over the errors of the past. They can't help doing that. I myself suffer at times pretty sharply from twinges of the rheumatism which I owe to youthful dissipation. It would be absurd enough for me, a quiet old fellow of sixty, to take blame to myself for what the wild student did, but, all the same, I confoundedly wish he hadn't.
"Ah, me!" continued the doctor. "Is there not sorrow and wrong enough in the present world without having moralists teach us that it is our duty to perpetuate all our past sins and shames in the multiplying mirror of memory, as if, forsooth, we were any more the causers of the sins of our past selves than of our fathers' sins. How many a man and woman have poisoned their lives with tears for some one sin far away in the past! Their folly is greater, because sadder, but otherwise just like that of one who should devote his life to a mood of fatuous and imbecile self-complacency over the recollection of a good act he had once done. The consequences of the good and the bad deeds our fathers and we have done fall on our heads in showers, now refreshing, now scorching, of rewards and of penalties alike undeserved by our present selves. But, while we bear them with such equanimity as we may, let us remember that as it is only fools who flatter themselves on their past virtues, so it is only a sadder sort of fools who plague themselves for their past faults."
Henry's quick ear caught a rustle in the retiring-room. He stepped to the door and looked in. Madeline was sitting up.
Her attitude was peculiar. Her feet were on the floor, her left hand rested on the sofa by her side, her right was raised to one temple and checked in the very act of pushing back a heavy braid of hair which had been disarranged in sleep. Her eyebrows were slightly contracted, and she was staring at the carpet. So concentrated did her faculties appear to be in the effort of reflection that she did not notice Henry's entrance until, standing by her aide, he asked, in a voice which he vainly tried to steady—
"How do you feel ?"
She did not look up at him at all, but replied, in the dreamy, drawling tone of one in a brown study—
"Did you just wake up?" he said, after a moment. He did not know what to say.
She now glanced up at him, but with an expression of only partial attention, as if still retaining a hold on the clue of her thoughts.
"I've been awake some time trying to think it out," she said.
"Think out what?" he asked, with a feeble affectation of ignorance. He was entirely at loss what course to take with her.
"Why, what it was that we came here to have me forget," she said, sharply. "You needn't think the doctor made quite a fool of me. It was something like hewing, harring, Howard. It was something that began with 'H,' I'm quite sure. 'H,'" she continued, thoughtfully, pressing her hand on the braid she was yet in the act of pushing back from her forehead. "'H,'—or maybe—'K.' Tell me, Henry. You must know, of course."
"Why—why," he stammered in consternation. "If you came here to forget it, what's the use of telling you, now you've forgotten it, that is—I mean, supposing there was anything to forget."
"I haven't forgotten it," she declared. "The process has been a failure anyhow. It's just puzzled me for a minute. You might as well tell me. Why, I've almost got it now. I shall remember it in a minute," and she looked up at him as if she were on the point of being vexed with his obstinacy. The doctor coming into the room at this moment, Henry turned to him in his perplexity, and said—
"Doctor, she wants to know what it was you tried to make her forget."
"What would you say if I told you it was an old love affair?" replied the doctor, coolly.
"I should say that you were rather impertinent," answered Madeline, looking at him somewhat haughtily.
"I beg your pardon. I beg your pardon, my dear. You do well to resent it, but I trust you will not be vexed with an old gentleman," replied the doctor, beaming on her from under his bushy eyebrows with an expression of gloating benevolence.
"I suppose, doctor, you were only trying to plague me so as to confuse me," she said, smiling. "But you can't do it. I shall remember presently. It began with 'H'—I am almost sure of that. Let's see—Harrington, Harvard. That's like it."
"Harrison Cordis, perhaps," suggested the doctor, gravely.
"Harrison Cordis? Harrison? Harrison?" she repeated, contracting her eyebrows thoughtfully; "no, it was more like Harvard. I don't want any more of your suggestions. You'd like to get me off the track."
The doctor left the room, laughing, and Henry said to her, his heart swelling with an exultation which made his voice husky, "Come, dear, we had better go now: the train leaves at four."
"I'll remember yet," she said, smiling at him with a saucy toss of the head. He put out his arms and she came into them, and their lips met in a kiss, happy and loving on her part, and fraught with no special feeling, but the lips which hers touched were tremulous. Slightly surprised at his agitation, she leaned back in his clasp, and, resting her glorious black eyes on his, said—
"How you love me, dear!"
Oh, the bright, sweet light in her eyes! the light he had not seen since she was a girl, and which had never shone for him before. As they were about to leave, the doctor drew him aside.
"The most successful operation I ever made, sir," he said, enthusiastically. "I saw you were startled that I should tell her so frankly what she had forgotten. You need not have been so. That memory is absolutely gone, and cannot be restored. She might conclude that what she had forgotten was anything else in the world except what if really was. You may always allude with perfect safety before her to the real facts, the only risk being that, if she doesn't think you are making a bad joke, she will be afraid that you are losing your mind."
All the way home Madeline was full of guesses and speculation as to what it had been which she had forgotten, finally, however, settling down to the conclusion that it had something to do with Harvard College, and when Henry refused to deny explicitly that such was the case, she was quite sure. She announced that she was going to get a lot of old catalogues and read over the names, and also visit the college to see if she could not revive the recollection. But, upon his solemnly urging her not to do so, lest she might find her associations with that institution not altogether agreeable if revived, she consented to give up the plan.
"Although, do you know," she said, "there is nothing in the world which I should like to find out so much as what it was we went to Dr. Heidenhoff in order to make me forget. What do you look so sober for? Wouldn't I really be glad if I could?"
"It's really nothing of any consequence," he said, pretending to be momentarily absorbed in opening his penknife.
"Supposing it isn't, it's just as vexatious not to remember it," she declared.
"How did you like Dr. Heidenhoff?" he asked.
"Oh, I presume he's a good enough doctor, but I thought that joke about an affair of the heart wasn't at all nice. Men are so coarse."
"Oh, he meant no harm," said Henry, hastily.
"I suppose he just tried to say the absurdest thing he could think of to put me off the track and make me laugh. I'm sure I felt more like boxing his ears. I saw you didn't like it either, sir."